An Impact Crater Chain in Northern Spain

by K. Ernstson1, U. Schussler2, F. Claudln" & T. Ernstson4

t-r'1he term impact crater chain is 1. commonly used when there are three or more lined up impact structures that have formed in a single impact event. Apart from a few established paired craters (e.g., Clearwater West and East in Canada, Ries and Steinheim Basin in Germany), three terrestrial crater chains with wellseparated structures have so far been proposed. The alignment of eight structures in Missouri, USA, is peculiar, but age considerations do not speak in favor of a single event, and only two of them are established impact craters. The well-known Aorounga imapact structure in the Chad may be accompanied by one or possibly two additional craters, but respective field evidence is outstanding. In 1998, a single impact event thought to have formed five individual structures, though spread over two continents, has been suggested. On the other hand, multiple impact structures are well known from the Moon, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter's satellites Ganymede and Callisto. Especially the detection of the impressive crater chains on Ganymede and Callisto, mysterious until the 1994 crash of the torn Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet with Jupiter, raised new interest and initiated investigations about multiple impacts by disrupted asteroids and comets. Here, we report on the previously established Mid-Tertiary Azuara impact structure in Spain and its nearby Rubielos de la Cerida companion crater as parts of a more or less continuous crater chain, the first of this kind known on Earth, of more than 100 km length (Fig. 1,2).

The detection of the suggested impact crater chain has been a long process. It begins in the eighties and early nineties with the establishment (by K.




erals is found. According to these occurrences, Azuara figures in the international Earth Impact Database of currently about 165 authentic impact structures worldwide.

In 1994, K. Ernstson and co-workers made a first reference to a suspected comparuon crater, the Rubielos de la Cerida structure, of similar size, located some 50 km south-southwest of the Azuara structure, and of the same Mid-Tertiary age of Upper Eocene or Oligocene. Meanwhile, Rubielos de Cerida presents all evidence of an impact structure. It shows the complete impact inventory as are a distinct morphology including a prominent central uplift, peculiar structural features, extended impact ejecta, suevite breccias, impact melt rocks, and strong shock metamorphism (Fig. 3). As especially peculiar finds in and around the Rubielos

Fig. 1. Location map for the Azuara - Rubielos de fa Cerida impact crater chain (frame in Fig. 2) and suspecied impact locations

(A, B, C).

Ernstson and co-workers) of the 35 -

40 km-diameter Azuara impact structure at the margin between the Alpidic fold belt of the Iberian Chain and the Tertiary Ebro Basin (Fig.2). The structure is affected by advanced erosion and partly covered by post-impact sediments, and a very soft sedimentary target may have contributed to an altogether weak morphological signature. However, in the rim region, there is abundant and impressive evidence of the giant impact event macroscoplcally documented by the occurrence of various kinds of typical impact rocks, dislocated megablocks and extended impact ejecta. On a microscopic scale, strong shock metamorphism in the form of melt glass, diaplectic glass (a glass produced by shock damage and not by melting) and all kinds

of planar deforma-

tion features in min-

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Meteorite August 2003 35

Fig. 2. The topograpqy of the Azuara/ Rubielos de fa Cerida crater chain. (!i"om the digital map of Spain, 1 : 250,000; provided by Manuel Cabedo).

de la Cerida structure, we mention

• melt rocks composed of nearly pure silicate glass.

• a carbonate-phosphate melt rock composed of calcite globules in a matrix of phosphate glass. This melt rock is assumed to reflect a liquid im-

miscibility of a carbonate and a phosphate melt similar to a liquid immiscibility of carbonate and silica melt found in impact rocks from, e.g., the Ries and Haughton craters.

• glassy amorphous carbon particles in a hitherto unknown bond with oxygen, possibly fullerenes. The amorphous carbon may have originated from extremely shocked limestones or as a quench product from shock-melted coal in the target rocks.

• large deposits of in situ shocked conglomerates which are composed of quartzite cobbles displaying prominent fractures and craters formed by collision and impact spallation.

In a paper with more than 40 photographs and photomicrographs recently published by the Geological Museum in Barcelona (Spain) (see References), a comprehensive progress report on Azuara and Rubielos de la Cerida as the currently most prominent terrestrial doublet impact structure is given.

Despite the clear impact evidence, some aspects of the morphological signature of the Rubielos de la Cerida structure remained a worry. In the north and in the west, the structure is morphologically well defined to displaya rim, a depression and a central uplift as is expected for a complex impact structure (Fig. 2). The morphological contours, however, become diffuse and depart from a circular symmetry towards the east and the south. (The hilly terrain adjoining the central uplift in the northeast must not confuse, because it is built up of post-impact younger sediments.) In the beginning of a more detailed investigation of the Rubielos de la Cerida structure, we considered this morphology the probable

36 Meteorite August 2003

F~. 3. Photomicrograph of strongjy shocked quartzfrom the Rubielos de la Cerida basin.

result of a later tectonic overprint. This interpretation became questionable when we extended our field studies to the eastern and southern poorly defined rim regions of the Rubielos de la Cerida structure. Unexpectedly, we found more impact shock features in autochthonous rocks too strong as to have originated from the Azuara and/ or Rubielos de la Cerida impacts. In the east, these finds focused on a nearly perfectly circular ring structure formed by steeply dipping beds. The diameter of this structure amounts to about 12 km, and it is called the Torrecilla ring or the Torrecilla impact structure (Fig. 2). The ring is suggested to have formed in the Azuara/ Rubielos de la Cerida impact event by a separate projectile resulting in a morphological overlap east of the Rubielos de la Cerida central uplift.

In the south, there is another explanation for the untypical morphology. Actually, Rubielos de la Cerida is not a circular impact structure but forms the northern end of an elongated basin (Fig. 2). Its rims are running roughly in the north-south direction, and also the Rubielos de la Cerida central uplift extends to the south in the form of a mountain chain more or less symmetrical to the rims of the elongated basin (Fig. 2, Fig. 4). This peculiar continuation of both the

from a post-impact tectonic deformation (as is the case with, e.g., the large Sudbury impact structure). The latter can in this case be excluded, and a low-angle trajectory of the projectile conflicts with the circular shape of the Azuara structure and the Torrecilla

ring as obvious companions to Rubielos de la Cerida, Therefore, the formation of the 80 km long basin by a pile of projectiles is rather probable. They caused several individual central-uplift craters more or less strung together morphologically and structurally. Such an uninterrupted crater chain, additionally blown up by the Azuara and Torrecilla structures, is so far unique among terrestrial impact structures.

Because of advanced weathering, the impact melt rocks found so far do not allow for a reliable absolute radio-

F~g. 4. Part of the central uplift chain emerging/rom the Rubielos de la Cerida impact basin.

Rubielos de la Cerida central uplift and basin is closely connected with the omnipresent occurrence of wellknown impact features in rocks already documented in the original Rubielos de la Cerida impact structure. The impact evidence comprises structural features, abundant monomict and polymict breccias and breccia dikes, extensive megabreccias and petrographical significance m the form of impact glass and shock metamorphism.

As an impressive structural feature, we show in Fig.5 a small part of the outcrop only recently produced by a new road cut through the rim fairly near the southern end of the elongated basin ~ 20 km northeast of the town of Teruel. The outcrop provides insight in voluminous drastically fractured and brecciated Buntsandstein and Muschelkalk rock units. As shown in Fig. 5, large-scale flow texture can be observed in the normally hard, now completely shattered rocks, Muschelkalk lens-shaped megablocks are floating within Buntsandstein material, and a prominent terraced faulting occurs. Within the heavily destroyed Triassic layers, large friction planes show intense slickensides and mirror polish (not seen in Fig. 5), and interleaved vesicular and foamy white material probably is crystallized carbonate melt from strong frictional heating of Muschelkalk carbonate. These features covering an area of uninterruptedly at least several hun-

dreds of meters and similarly met in many places of the central-uplift chain and in the basin rims (Fig.6), cannot be explained by normal geologic, tectonic processes. In the cratering process of a very large impact, however, exactly such a scenario

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collapse of the transient crater in the mocli£cation stage. These movements under very high pressures may act so rapidly that the resulting friction temperatures are enough to transform the involved rocks into pure melt glass. We made such a peculiar find roughly 10 km northwest of the

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town of Teruel in the most southerly part of the central-uplift chain. In part, the glass seems to be completely homogenized suggesting temperatures in excess of 2,000°C (D. Griscom,

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Fig. 5. The crater rim in the southern part of the impact chain.

metric dating. Therefore, the most tacts the older Mesozoic folded rocks striking evidence for a synchronous and is more or less meshed with them multiple impact of Azuara, Torrecilla, without any soil formation. The uniand the Rubielos de la Cerida crater formity of this polymict breccia and chain is provided by the stratigraphic its fixed stratigraphic position found layering of an impact suevite breccia. in a region of the size of roughly 120 Extending from the northern part of km strongly suggests a single phase of the Azuara structure up to the south- the brecciation and deposition, which ern part of the crater chain near the is typical for a large impact but not at town of Teruel, this peculiar breccia all expected for "normal" geologic displaying shock effects and melt processes.

clasts (Fig.7) is regularly found at the The impact event on the Iberian base of the post-impact (and post- Peninsula may have been even more Alpidic) undisturbed Upper Tertiary spectacular. Three enigmatic deposits rocks. The up to 20 m thick horizon- (A, B, C in Fig. 1 ) located more than tally bedded breccia layer always con- 200 km northwest and northeast of

Fig. 6. Megabreccia and polishedfriction plane in the southern part of the central-uplift chain.

38 Meteorite August 2003

the Azuara structure attract attention, because they show the typical features of impact ejecta deposits, and because their stratigraphic age may be related with the age of the Azuara/Rubielos de la Cerida impact event. All three deposits are composed of strongly plastically deformed clasts in an unconsolidated sandy matrix (Fig. 8). The clasts show heavy striations, imprints, penetration marks and rotated fractures very similar to deformations known from the Azuara/Rubielos de la Cerida ejecta and described also for the Ries crater (Germany) impact ejecta and the Chicxulub impact ejecta in Belize. Abundant moderate shock effects are observed to occur in silicate clasts that contribute to the diamictite deposits Band C (Fig. 1 ). The age is Upper Eocene or younger for deposit A, post-Cretaceous for deposit B, and Upper Eocene or Oligocene for deposit C. Because the diamictites are in each case composed of local material, an emplacement as distant ejecta from the Azuara/ Rubielos de la Cerida structures can be excluded. However, local candidates for possible impact craters are not known so far. This may be explained by a tectonic overprint, or they may be buried beneath post-impact young sediments. A systematic search is outstanding. However, the obvious impact signature of the three deposits and the conspicuous age relations with the Azuara/Rubielos de la Cerida impacts suggest that the multiple impact affected an even larger area sized of the order of at least 300 km. Thus, Azuara - Rubielos de la Cerida may in the future turn out to be important for further studies on the disruption of asteroids and multiple (cometary?) impacts on Earth and other planets.

The here proposed large multiple impact event and its age direct attention also to the end-Eocene (38 Ma) mass extinction and the debated possible relation with large impacts, similar to the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary extinction related with the

giant Chicxulub impact. As for the end-Eocene mass extinction, the large Popigai impact structure in Russia and the Chesapeake crater in the United States have so far been proposed as possible "smoking guns" of the event. The northern Spain multiple impact could be a further candidate because of its size and the more than 10 km thick sedimentary target. At the time of the impact, a high proportion of this target consisted of carbonate rocks and probably also evaporite (gypsum) layers. Such target rocks in a giant impact cratering process have been suggested to be important in triggering global climate changes.

I Fakultat fur Geowissenschaften der Universitat Wiirzburg, Pleicherwall 1, D-97070 Wurzburg, Germany Institut fur Mineralogie der Universitat Wurzburg, Am Hubland, D-97074 Wurzburg, Germany

3 IES GioIa, Llinars del Valles.

Barcelona-08450, Spain

4 Am Judengarten 23, Hochberg, Germany



Because of the limited space, only a few references are given here. A comprehensive list may be ordered from the corresponding author (

Ernstson, K., Hammann, W, Fiebag, J, Graup, G. (1985): Evidence of an impact origin for the Azuara structure (Spain). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett., 74, 361- 370.

Ernstson, K. & Claudin, F. (1990):

Perlada Formation (Eastern Iberian Chains, NE Spain): ejecta of the Azuara impact structure. N. Jb. Ceo!. Paldont. Mh." 581-599.

Ernstson, K & Fiebag, J (1992): The Azuara impact structure (Spain): new insights from geophysical and geological investigations. Ceo!. Rundscba«, 81, 403-427.

Melosh,H.J and Schenk, P. (1993):

Split comets and the origin of crater chains on Ganymede and Calis to, Nature 365,731-733.

Bottke, WF., Richardson, nc. and Love, S.G. (1997) Note: Can tidal disrup-

Fig. 7. Impact breccia (suevite) exposed in the southern part of the central-uplift chain.

tion of asteroids make crater chains on the Earth and Moon? Icarus 126,470-474.

Richardson, nc., Bottke, WF.and Love, S.G. (1998): Tidal distortion and disruption of Earth-crossing asteroids. Icarus 134,47-76.

Spray, JG., Kelley, S.P. and Rowley, DB. (1998): Evidence for a late

Triassic multiple impact event on Earth. Nature 392, 171-173.

Ocampo, A.c., Pope, K.o. and

Fischer, A.G. (1997): Carbonate ejecta from the Chixculub crater: evidence for ablation and particle interactions under high temperatures and pressures. Lunar Planet. Sci. Corf., XXVIII, 1035 - 1036.

Hradil, K., Schussler, u., Ernstson, K. (2001): Silicate, phosphate and carbonate

melts as indicators for an impact-related high-temperature influence on sedimentary rocks of the Rubielos de la Cerida structure, Spain. in "Impact markers in the stratigraphic record", 6[h ESF-IMPACT workshop, abstract book, Granada, 49-50.

Ernstson, K., Rampino, M.R. and Hiltl, M. (2001) Cratered cobbles in TriasSlC Buntsandstein conglomerates 10 northeastern Spain: An indicator of shock deformation in the vicinity of large impacts. Geology 29, 11-14.

Ernstson, K., Claudin, F., Schussler, u., Hradil, K. (2002): The mid-Tertiary Azuara and Rubielos de la Cerida paired impact structures (Spain). Treballs Museu de Ceologia de Barcelona, 11, 1- 62.

Fig. 8. Probable impact qecta near Peiiacerrada (location B in Fig. 1).

Meteorite August 2003 39

A/4 Zaragoza ;:arcelona
B 0
Madrid D
00 Teruel
N 0
0 250 km